The Nightmare Hasn’t Stopped

I don’t mean in the “we have to vote the assholes out” sense, either. I was briefly put at ease by articles like these:

The Trump administration insisted it didn’t have a policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. It said that it was merely following the law. And it said “Congress alone can fix” the mess.

It just admitted that all that was nonsense — and that it badly overplayed its hand.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who on Sunday and Monday insisted that this wasn’t an actual policy and that the administration’s hands are tied, will now have to untie them as the White House will reverse the supposedly nonexistent policy. Amid an outcry from Senate Republicans and an emerging promise to fix the problem themselves — just as the White House had demanded — the Trump administration has drafted an executive action to change the policy and keep families united.

President Trump caved to enormous political pressure on Wednesday and signed an executive order meant to end the separation of families at the border by detaining parents and children together for an indefinite period.

“We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep the families together,” Mr. Trump said as he signed the order in the Oval Office. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”

Alas, the White House has fully embraced the “troll the libs” mentality of the far-Right. Stephen Miller, one of the main architects behind ripping kids from their families, has said his goal is to create “constructive controversy – with the purpose of enlightenment.” In college, this meant “he wrote op-eds comparing his liberal classmates to terrorists and musing that Osama bin Laden would fit in at his high school.” Other news reports paint him as overjoyed at images of crying children.

“Stephen actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border,” an outside White House adviser said. “He’s a twisted guy, the way he was raised and picked on. There’s always been a way he’s gone about this. He’s Waffen-SS.”

Caving in so easily is out-of-character for this crew, it had to be a cover or distraction for something else.

[Read more…]

Dispatches From Enlightenment Now: Sweatshop Feminism

Steven Pinker loves hiding behind other people’s opinions. Remember the bit on voluntary chemical castration in The Blank Slate? Pinker is careful not to say that he’d like to castrate sex offenders explicitly, but by championing the argument and chastising others for not taking it seriously he’s able to promote the idea yet have someone else to blame.

Enlightenment Now is no different; at one point, Steven Pinker brings forward an argument that 19th century sweatshops were empowering for women.

[Read more…]

Fire All Trump Voters Into The Sun

I’ve been a fan of Rachael Maddow for years. She’s a consummate pro, and hosting a live show for a decade has given her a deft ability to handle interviews and distill down complex talking points on the fly.

So when that polished exterior breaks down on live TV, you know you’re in for some heavy shit.

PZ beat me to this one, but it’s important enough to put on repeat. Trump and his cronies are literally using babies as pawns for political and financial gain. Anyone who voted for him is complicit in this, because you knew what you were voting for. This is on you, and if you have even a crumb of humanity in you, I expect you to stop supporting the party of Trump. If you do not, I will hold you responsible for their actions, including the mass incarceration of babies.

Police and Pride Parades

Deja vu: the Edmonton Pride parade halted in the face of a brief protest, and after considering the protester’s demands the organisers decided to ban police and RCMP from marching with them. Something similar happened in Calgary last year, when protesters convinced Pride organisers to block police/RCMP from walking with Pride while in uniform (inadvertently causing our local CFI affiliate to implode and rebrand, which was for the best).

I’m not a member of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, but I can understand the sentiment.

Not wanting to lose the momentum gained from Stonewall, the newly empowered LGBT rights leaders in several different cities began mobilizing, trying to answer the question “Now what?”

On November 2, 1969, at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations in Philadelphia, the first pride march was proposed by way of a resolution. The Christopher Street Liberation Day march was then held in New York City on June 28, 1970, marking the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots with an assembly on Christopher Street and a march covering the 51 blocks to Central Park. […]

In 1970, walking in broad daylight with a sign saying you were a homosexual was not only terrifying but could prove deadly. Many of the marchers in those first Pride events were genuinely scared they might not make it to the end of the route. They had no idea where they were going to finish or if anyone would show up to march with them or if they would even make it halfway down the street without being mobbed by an angry, violent crowd.

Pride parades began as a protest against police violence, as well as a defiant show of existence. The pageantry that arrived in later years was a natural consequence.

The oft-echoed reason for the necessity of a parade is that there is still work to be done. There is still a lack of equality and there are still people who are afraid of coming out. The jovial and unrepressed nature of a parade can be inspiring.

Another reason? It’s just fun, writes travel blogger Adam Groffman. In a movement that is so frequently grabbing headlines for issues such as marriage inequality and bullying against LGBT youth, it’s even more imperative to balance that out with an image of “fun and cheer.”

In a time when the rights of LGBT+ people are under increasing attack, it was also natural that the protest side of Pride parades would reassert itself. And let’s face it, the police have a very bad track record with this community. In 1967, a Calgarian named Everett Klippert was branded a “dangerous sex offender” and served four years in prison for being gay. In the 1970’s, police demanded the university records of gay students at the University of Calgary and set up “sting operations” to catch them hooking up. On December 12th, 2002, Calgary police raided the Goliath bathhouse. Despite finding no evidence of wrong-doing, it took three years for the charges to be dropped, and even then the police thought they’d done nothing wrong.

“Prior to December 12, I would’ve said that Calgary Police Service is not a homophobic organization,” said [Steven] Lock outside the courthouse. “Post December 12, I don’t have that view anymore.”

That sort of thing leaves a mark.Mix in the increasing activism from people of colour and the First Nations about police brutality, and you’re more than justified from excluding uniformed police from marching in Pride parades.

Gaining Credibility

You might have wondered why I didn’t pair my frequentist analysis in this post with a Bayesian one. Two reasons: length, and quite honestly I needed some time to chew over hypotheses. The default frequentist ones are entirely inadequate, for starters:

  • null: The data follows a Gaussian distribution with a mean of zero.
  • alternative: The data follows a Gaussian distribution with a non-zero mean.

In chart form, their relative likelihoods look like this. [Read more…]

Identity Whistling

I’ve seen a few editorials along the lines of this one or this one:

An expanding working class may have dealt the final blow to the Kathleen Wynne Liberals, whose support has now become concentrated among upper class Ontarians and a shrinking middle class. For now, Doug Ford’s PCs hold a strong hand with working class voters—nearly double the support of either the Liberals or NDP. If Ford can sustain his working class support until June 7, he will sweep to a majority government.

It’s eerily similar to what we were hearing about Trump, isn’t it? And in Trump’s case, we’ve got a growing body of evidence that it wasn’t about economics, it was really about identity threat.

Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 campaign for the U.S. presidential election has defied the expectations of many Americans. This study is the first to demonstrate experimentally that the changing racial demographics of America are directly contributing to Trump’s success among Whites by increasing perceived threats to their group’s status. It is also the first to show that White Americans’ responses to increasing racial diversity depend on how identified they are with their ethnic group.

Major, Brenda, Alison Blodorn, and Gregory Major Blascovich. “The threat of increasing diversity: Why many White Americans support Trump in the 2016 presidential election.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations (2016): 1368430216677304.

The most obvious finding in Table 1 is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is little to no evidence that those whose incomes declined or whose incomes increased to a lesser extent than others’ incomes were more likely to support Trump. Even change in subjective assessment of one’s own personal financial situation had no discernible impact on evaluations of Trump or on change in vote choice. Likewise, those who lost a job between 2012 and 2016 were no more likely to support Trump. […]

Mass opinion changes on status threat-related issues were not, by themselves, the driving force in increasing affinity for the Republican candidate. Instead, increasing relative distance from the Democratic candidate on threat-related issues, such as immigration and China, consistently predicted Trump support in a positive direction, whereas decreasing relative distance from the Republican candidate on trade and China also predicted change in the direction of voting for Trump. These consistently significant coefficients indicate that change over time in the candi dates’ perceived positions relative to those of individual respondents had a significant impact in increasing support for Trump. The pattern in Table 1 makes it clear that it was change in how the candidates positioned themselves on status threat-related issues combined with smaller changes in public issue opinions that predicted increasing support for the Republican candidate in 2016.

Mutz, Diana C. “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016 Presidential Vote.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 19, 2018, 201718155.

Ironically, a lot of the people banging on about the evils of “identity politics” are engaging in it themselves; people who identify with a privileged group are paranoid about losing those privileges, and will lash out at anyone who’s arguing for a more level playing field. But they recognize that “white people are inherently superior” and similar assertions are monstrous, so they need to hide behind some sort of coded language or flimsy argument. They aren’t part of an identity, oh no, so they can’t be engaging in identity politics! It’s not about a loss of privilege, oh no, it’s about working class voters feeling disenfranchised! It’s not about racism, oh no, it’s about immigrants taking our jobs!

You can see how this could explain the Ontario election: Ford was a horrifically unfit candidate, but identity-threat dog whistles could make him highly valued by a white majority that felt they were under threat, valued enough to transcend his flaws. The missing piece is whether he actually blew those whistles.

Earlier this month, the leader of the Ontario PCs generated significant controversy when he brought up the issue of immigration on the campaign trail, suggesting Ontario should “take care of our own” before worrying about immigrants. On a Google Hangout recently streamed by figures on the far-right linked to several Canadian hate groups, white nationalists appeared thrilled at the prospect of Doug Ford becoming Premier of Ontario. One avowed white nationalist even bragged that Ford was directly communicating with white nationalists using a “dog whistle” – ‘dog whistling’ refers to the use of coded language to disguise racist ideas to a general audience while signalling to racists themselves.

His recent attacks on Toronto “elites” and the media seem like conscious evocations of the bully-boy rhetoric Trump used to great advantage in his 2016 campaign. And his crude style – he once pledged to give his own party an “enema” – hasn’t backfired on him, yet. […]

In recent days, for example, he went out of his way to shun a planned leaders’ debate hosted by a Toronto-area black organization. Over the weekend, he drew boos during a speech to a Somali group during which he promised to reinstate an anti-gang police task force that had been intensely criticized for over-policing poor neighborhoods with large black populations (the Liberal government had pulled the plug on the task force).

Roger Keil, a York University urban geographer who studies politics and planning in Toronto’s suburbs, adds that when Ford was running for mayor, he didn’t exactly race to defend an opponent, a longtime local and federal politician named Olivia Chow, who came in for nasty racial attacks – just one of several that marred that election.“He never made an attempt to put himself between the racist and sexist overtones,” says Keil. “The real Doug Ford is a mean, clever strategist who has demonstrated time and again that he knows exactly what he’s doing.”

All signs point to yes. The best counter-argument isn’t to deny he made those whistles, it’s to argue Canadians are too savvy to fall for them. Click through on that last link and you’ll see what I mean; it goes to great lengths to point out that Toronto is very diverse, and that other conservative groups who used identity-threat dog whistles have been punished for it in the polls. All of them happened before Donald Trump, though. Trump may have shoved the Overton window so far that we’ve grown tolerant of certain whistles. Ford was also one of the first Canadian politicians to have a major press organization blast out and legitimize his whistles, much as Fox News did for Trump.

We need more data up here to be sure, but I suspect identity-threat dog whistles were enough to push Doug Ford over the top. Either way, they’ve become a major player in the North American political landscape.


Remember that post about the Ontario election? That trend in the polls continued, putting the NDP and PC’s in a dead heat. Meanwhile, Doug Ford was sued by his late brother’s wife, was recorded trying to sell fake party memberships to guarantee he’d become the PC leader, broke election law while fundraising, and on and on. Between all the lying and even promises of a blind trust to hold off allegations of nepotism, he’s about as close as Canada gets to a Donald Trump, which should have made an NDP minority a slam-dunk.

Led by Doug Ford, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives have secured a majority government, ending nearly 15 years of Liberal power in the province. The NDP will form the province’s Official Opposition, while the embattled Liberals were handed a substantial rebuke from voters, losing the vast majority of their seats at Queen’s Park.

“Dead heat” in the polls, alas, didn’t take into account our first-past-the-post system; the vote distribution ensured the PCs held a seat advantage, though unlike the US this wasn’t due to gerrymandering. And there was a last-minute surge in support for the PC’s, so what was originally a 36-37% share of the vote grew to 40%. Ontarians just didn’t see the problem with electing a Trump clone.

On the plus side, Ford doesn’t have access to nuclear weapons and a military.

Yes, I’m reaching. *sigh*

Dispatches from “Enlightenment Now:” Poverty

Gawd, Enlightenment Now is turning into a slog. Let’s take one passage as an example:

Most surprises in history are unpleasant surprises, but this news came as a pleasant shock even to the optimists. In 2000 the United Nations laid out eight Millennium Development Goals, their starting lines backdated to 1990. At the time, cynical observers of that underperforming organization dismissed the targets as aspirational boilerplate. Cut the global poverty rate in half, lifting a billion people out of poverty, in twenty-five years? Yeah, yeah. But the world reached the goal five years ahead of schedule. Development experts are still rubbing their eyes. [Angus] Deaton writes, “This is perhaps the most important fact about wellbeing in the world since World War II.” [pg. 94]

That smelled like something worth researching, so I dug in. After plotting a counter-argument involving how that progress has been made, I read ahead to make sure I wasn’t taking Pinker out of context or missing something, and guess what?

Hundreds of millions of people remain in extreme poverty, and getting to zero will require a greater effort than just extrapolating along a ruler. Though the numbers are dwindling in countries like India and Indonesia, they are increasing in the poorest of the poor countries, like Congo, Haiti, and Sudan, and the last pockets of poverty will be the hardest to eliminate. Also, as we approach the goal we should move the goalposts, since not-so-extreme poverty is still poverty. In introducing the concept of progress I warned against confusing hard-won headway with a process that magically takes place by itself. The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works. [pg. 94]

Pinker admits that progress towards the Millennium goal of reducing poverty has been uneven, stepping on the argument I was going to make! Here’s what the UN’s official report has to say about that, in fact:

The world’s most populous countries, China and India, played a central role in the global reduction of poverty. As a result of progress in China, the extreme poverty rate in Eastern Asia has dropped from 61 per cent in 1990 to only 4 per cent in 2015. Southern Asia’s progress is almost as impressive—a decline from 52 per cent to 17 per cent for the same period—and its rate of reduction has accelerated since 2008.
In contrast, sub-Saharan Africa’s poverty rate did not fall below its 1990 level until after 2002. Even though the decline of poverty has accelerated in the past decade, the region continues to lag behind. More than 40 per cent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa still lives in extreme poverty in 2015. In Western Asia, the extreme poverty rate is expected to increase between 2011 and 2015.

I keep tripping across similar situations. I’ll see Pinker make a point, run off to do research on it, then find he’s undercut his own point later. Which one sticks in your mind depends on your biases: if you think that we’ve made remarkable progress and can sit on the status quo, you’ll remember the part about cutting poverty and downplay the recognition that things have been uneven; if you think we’ve done well but can improve further, you’ll be thankful for the recognition that things could improve and might be tempted to forgive his fanciful flights.

But this can lull you from looking at the whole picture. That $1.25 a day was based on the poverty rates of the poorest 10-20 countries, yet the median poverty line in developing countries was $2 a day at the time. Standards of living are different in different countries, so while the UN may declare $13 a day “middle class” in the developed world, $4,748 a year doesn’t come close to the $7,320 you’d need for one bedroom in shared accommodations in Calgary. It’s nonsensical to use a single metric across the entire globe, and to be fair the UN probably realized this; the real goal was less about hitting specific targets and more of an effort to change hearts and minds, as well as open up wallets that were beginning to shut.

Nor were the results all that surprising. Pinker never considers why a set of goals agreed to in September 2000 could be so easily back-dated to 1990. In reality, the Millennium Development Goals were based on ideas that have been floating since the 1990’s, and their basic framework existed as early as 1996. The MDGs were developed by a broad coalition of organizations, and voluntarily agreed to by 189 countries. You wouldn’t have gotten that level of consensus had you proposed bold, risky targets to hit; the MDGs were designed to be achievable, from the very start. They were a PR stunt, albeit one that also saved lives and reduced misery.

Pinker almost leaves China out of the picture, but manages to sneak in this passage:

Cynical explanations, such as that the enrichment is a one-time dividend of a surge in the price of oil and other commodities, or that the statistics are inflated by the rise of populous China, have been examined and dismissed. [pg. 94]

Except, as I quoted earlier, the UN themselves admit that China’s progress was instrumental in reaching the Millennium goal for poverty. Pinker’s citation which tackles this head-on sets up a straw-person – “The global decline of extreme poverty – was it only China?” – then easily knocks that down by showing that China merely played a significant role in reducing the global poverty numbers.

World Bank data on "extreme poverty," with and without China included.If we’re to look at the two biggest successes for clues in reducing poverty, as Pinker suggests we do, we should then focus on becoming more autocratic and more liberal, more protectionist and more free-trade, plus more censorious and more censorious. Reality is much more complicated than he presents, and even the shades of gray he injects are less about honestly reflecting the real world than an attempt to distract and frustrate his critics. His grandiose pronouncements and simplistic graphs are proof of the latter. I mean, just look at this:

The Gross World Product, spanning two thousand years.

To generate that graph, you need to estimate the annual output of all human activity across two thousand years, then you need to correct it for differences in purchasing power and inflation. I’m surprised Pinker didn’t quote the guy who spanned a million years with similar techniques instead, he seems less cautious than the source Pinker used.

Limitations to data quality also means that estimating the growth of GDP per capita over many decades, or even centuries, is a hazardous undertaking that, despite the best effort of statisticians and researchers, will always be surrounded by a degree of uncertainty. As a result, earlier estimates of relative income levels diverge substantially from standalone benchmark comparisons or independent estimates of relative income for those early periods.

Income for pre-1500 populations were estimated by figuring out how many people were in extreme poverty, then assigning them an income of $1.25 a day. As Pinker himself notes, purchasing power adjustments are done by assuming things like loaves of bread and beer have a fixed value over all times and places. The global GDP was calculated by estimating the growth of GDP per capita per year, converting that into GDP per capita, then multiplying by world population estimates, a method the Maddison Project acknowledges can lead to “implausible results.”

The graph has so many assumptions built in it’s not worth the photons. Yet Pinker puts it in the front of his chapter on wealth, calling the chart “simple but stunning” and spending three paragraphs hyping it up. He then turns around and spends three paragraphs pointing out some (but not all) of its limitations, and concludes “A person whose wallet contains the cash equivalent of a hundred 2011 international dollars today is fantastically richer than her ancestor with the equivalent wallet’s worth two hundred years ago.” The 1818 equivalent of $100 is substantially less than the 2018 equivalent of that same $100?

An honest inquiry into poverty wouldn’t have featured that graph. But attempting to show that demands a helluva lot of research and dead ends, in Pinker’s case. Ugh.